Since a big white Chinese spy balloon floated across the ocean and into U.S. airspace, the United States has shot down four objects over North American skies. What are we looking at, and what are we shooting at? Are these objects American? Are they Chinese? Are they human? To tell the full story of this bizarre month in aerial objects—from the balloon to the aerial shoot-out to the UFO freak-out—we’ve got two guests: former Atlantic correspondent and Substack writer James Fallows and the science writer and noted extraterrestrial-object researcher Mick West.
In the following excerpt, Fallows discusses what might have brought the Chinese balloon to South Carolina and why U.S. surveillance is picking up so many UFOs right now.
Derek Thompson: I want to start by taking us back a few weeks to the Chinese spy balloon that kicked off this whole trend of America shooting stuff out of the sky. You know as much about China and Chinese-American relations as anybody that I know. Give me your summary of what you think happened here.
James Fallows: So the reaction on the U.S. side, to which I had immediate and total skepticism, was the idea that this was some Chinese provocation. They were giving the middle finger to the U.S., they were showing their greatness, et cetera, et cetera. And it seemed to me that the much more likely explanation, given everything that seems to be true about China and true about this kind of aerial device, is that this was a screwup. And the question was, at what level was it a screwup? Was it something that happened with the winds just at the very tactical level? Was it somebody within the People’s Liberation Army who had some big idea that they were going to do something to taunt the United States? Was it a miscalculation at the very highest level of Chinese leadership saying, “OK, we’re going to show a new thing we can do”? There are instances of all those things in past Chinese history, but mainly it seemed to me this was going to make China end up looking clownish, as I think it did. And so at what level did the clownishness, as opposed to the menace, start on the Chinese side?
Thompson: It’s certainly possible that the level at which the mistake began is just the direction of winds. I was fairly persuaded by one of your reports in your Substack. You look at wind currents and the weather patterns that were present in North America at the time, including a little bit of the polar vortex, and that might be sufficient to explain how a Chinese spy balloon—that might have been a legitimate Chinese spy balloon trying to take pictures of something in Guam or who knows what—flew off course and ended up in Montana. Tell us a little bit about how the winds might have played a key role here.
Fallows: So there’s a general point about winds and the way they would affect this U.S. and Chinese surveillance. The way the winds blow around the Earth, which is almost everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, west to east, means that it’s very easy for countries on the Pacific like China or Russia to send balloons across the U.S. or Canada because that is where the wind would take them. And it’s very difficult for the U.S. to do that with China because you’d have to be launching them around Moscow or someplace to have the wind blow them over China and get them over Tibet and all the rest. So it was not surprising that you had this drift westward from this Montana area to South Carolina across the United States.
The particular anomaly that wasn’t clear on day one or two, but that lots of weather experts then wrote in, was that the time when the balloon made its fateful, menacing crossing starting in Montana coincided with one of the coldest moments in recorded history on the U.S. East Coast, when all this cold air from the Arctic and Canada came down much farther south than normal. There’s been an excellent recent series of pieces in The Washington Post where they’ve had both security reporters and meteorologists saying that it appears this balloon might have been launched someplace on the offshore in China and been intended for Guam. Something kicked it way up far north toward the Aleutian Islands, and then something pushed it way far south down to the U.S. And that same thing that brought temperatures of minus-100 degrees or something like that to Mount Washington in New England may have been the same massive air that pushed this balloon down to the U.S. So to me, that seems the most likely scenario now.
Thompson: We shoot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, and in a matter of days U.S. surveillance goes from seeing one balloon in the sky to seeing suddenly a constellation of weird flying objects that we start shooting down. How would you explain what happened? How did our radar technology and surveillance technology go from seeing one thing to suddenly seeing all these things that needed to be taken down?
Fallows: Well, there is of course the possibility that new things are coming from space. And so we don’t want to say that’s impossible. I once worked for Jimmy Carter, who among his many accomplishments was sort of a UFO-interested person. It seems to me the much more likely hypothesis is that radar, to work, has to be tuned. There is so much stuff that radar could be bouncing off. It’s very much like if you’re driving across the country, trying to find a radio station on your car radio—back when there were car radios—and you would have a seek or scan button and it would skip around because there’s so many very weak and scratchy and non-legible stations that it can’t really focus on. So it finds the ones that are worth looking at. Radar works very much the same way.
Something that I hadn’t realized until I saw radar in airplane cockpits is that if you’re looking at the ground, many times it seems like there’s all kinds of crap in front of you. And it can be birds and it can be dust and it can be smoke from a forest fire. It can be all sorts of things. So radar has always had to be tuned to be able to separate signal from noise. And generally, military radar has said if something is moving at a velocity of 0 knots relative to the prevailing air, and if it’s so small we can hardly see it, and if it’s made out of plastic so there’s nothing bouncing back, we’re not going to pay attention to that because we’re looking at something going 500 knots and made out of metal that’s coming from Russia, et cetera. So I think suddenly, it’s recalibrating and you see all these things as if you’re bringing a microscope or a telescope or binoculars into focus and seeing things that were always there—you just hadn’t been looking for them.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: James Fallows & Mick West
Producer: Devon Manze